Gifts and hospitality – the psychology of obligation in a procurement context

Our recent discussion here and on LinkedIn around gifts and hospitality (triggered by events around the Met Police chief) caused considerable debate, so I'm delighted to have a guest post from Nigel Robson, whose comments were particularly pertinent and insightful. Nigel is a professional procurement executive and interim and Director at Northcape Limited.  He desribes himself as a "Procurement Evangelist, really" and you can contact him on nigel.robson@northcape.co.uk

Peter asked me to write something on “the psychology of obligation in a procurement context “, exploring an idea that sprang from a debate recently on the registration of corporate hospitality. The truth is, it probably isn’t Procurement which is most at risk.

The story begins a long time ago. Humanity is both a collaborative and competitive species, which has, over millions of years, evolved the instincts and patterns of behaviour which underpin our social exchanges, buffering us from open conflict and lubricating human interactions. These interplays are pretty much hard-wired into us and need a conscious effort to recognise or alter. I’m not going to cite references here, but they’re all readily available if you choose to look. Transactional Analysis, Game Theory, Psychology, Anthropology and Political Science all give examples of how this drives our social and societal relationships.

There are human behaviours which we use to influence, build up a debt or even begin or participate in a competitive cycle of obligation - it affects us at a very primitive level in the human psyche, fed by, and tapping into, our ego. For example, a chief will invite a neighbouring chief to a feast, which the guest chief is obliged to reciprocate in some way, using it as a means to subtly demonstrate that he has equal or greater resources, power and influence.

The first chief is then expected to respond to the challenge - and off it goes until they either go to war (undesirable outcome), or the loser becomes a subsidiary chief to the winner (desirable outcome). It is also used at a lower intensity within social groups to develop networks of obligations that can be called in at some point in the future, in a form to be decided by the owner of the obligation.

These behaviours then, are seen as a part of our instinctive human survival and coping mechanisms to help us collaborate without (usually) resorting to beating each other’s brains out in order to establish seniority, pecking orders, control over resources and above all, to reinforce cohesion between and within groups by maintaining a subconscious network of almost imperceptible obligations that primarily exist as a kind of insurance – “if I give you this now, then you’ll help me in the future by giving me what I need then” – often at a subconscious level, but frequently, not.

Businesses, recognising the underlying psychology, realise that hospitality is a sales investment and use every means that they can to capitalise on it and to develop positive impressions about themselves in the minds of their targets, all of which serves to tip the balance marginally in their favour when that target is involved in a decision-making situation.

We all, subconsciously, like to receive “positive strokes", but then, equally subconsciously, we need to give positive strokes back in return, in order to balance the books. We all know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but what is the price that we might be asked to pay, as procurement professionals, in return for what we receive from our suppliers?

First Voice

  1. David Atkinson:

    Excellent post. Really enjoyed it.

    What should be done with procurement professionals still out there who understand this, yet still take back-handers?

    I’ve not checked with CIPS but what has happened in the past with known felons? Did they (or do they) get their membership automatically withdrawn and become persona non grata?

    Why should there be anything other than zero tolerance?

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